Thursday, September 28, 2006

Playing Priest

I used to play priest as a boy. I had an altar in the living room, and I'd cover a set of books with a "chalice veil" made of a table napkin. My chasuble was a homemade quilt. Two pals next door from the local Church of Christ, who had no idea what was going on, were my altar boys. To this day, I see grown-ups playing priest all the time. No, not just on a boat on the river in Pittsburgh. They can be found in virtually every parish in America.

They're called "communion ministers."

(Have I told this story before? Oh, who cares, it still works.)


Since I relocated to the DC area in 1980, I've moved from one part of town to another, so I've belonged to eight Roman rite parishes in all that time. All of them but one used lay people to assist as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. (Did I get the title correct?) And only one of them ever called upon me to do so.

Just lucky, I guess.

And even that circumstance was only due to my being a paid sacristan on staff, and my duties required the careful handling of the Sacred Species at one time or another. So I would have asked for it anyway. But it was during that experience that I learned, for all their pretense, of how unaware people could be of what it was they were handling. I saw the Precious Blood poured into the sacrarium (a practice that ended on my watch). I saw the ciborium being passed from one to another in the choirloft, with people partaking of the Body of Christ with all the reverence of a bowl of potato chips.

Then it got really weird...

Over the years, I've been asked by a priest or a bishop to assist at Communion while serving for him at the altar. I'd get down on one knee and ask for his blessing, and proceed reluctantly. Once I had to stop a woman from dipping the Host into the chalice. "Madame, that is not done. I will explain after Mass." When the time came, she was a good sport. Got lucky there too.

I used to be more or less sympathetic to the idea. As if the above were not enough, several other things turned me around.

First and foremost, was the people who normally do it. Not that there's anything wrong with them. It's just that you get the feeling that it's a lark, a thing to do to "make lay people feel involved." Especially when there just has to be one no matter if only a few dozen people show up, or if four or five priests show up. I have this permanent image of the clean-cut looking fellow in the dark suit who used to hang around the sacristy with that I'm-just-here-to-help-out look on his choirboy face. To think he could have been out helping to park cars. One parish I belonged to put out a call for volunteers, and I made the mistake of signing up. I asked only to take communion to the sick, knowing that this was less popular (and less conspicuous) than putting on the dog in church. Perhaps it was a blessing from the Almighty that I never heard from them again. The people at this parish were really bad at returning calls anyway -- the priests, the staff, the volunteers, on down the line. Something in the holy water, I think. Or in the rectory.

But back to my fascinating story. In the course of writing this piece, I went out on a limb and did some homework.


First of all, historically, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are not unheard of, and not just in times of emergency. Every Catholic school alumnus over the age of fifty remembers hearing the story of St Tarciscus, the Roman boy who was delegated to carry the Eucharist to a remote location, and when stopped by some local pagan boys, refused to disclose what he was carrying, so they roughed him up to the point of death. Some claim that Tarciscus was a deacon, but it is more likely that he was what we would now call an acolyte or subdeacon (inasmuch as he was a mere youth). Through the centuries, deaconesses carried to Eucharist to sick women, and abbesses were delegated to administer the Eucharist in their communities in the absence of a priest, especially in the Eastern churches. Even in the present day, a bishop of an Eastern rite church has been known to delegate a layman to assist in administering Communion, usually a seminarian or diaconal candidate.

The document which officially laid down the guidelines for this practice in the Latin rite was Paul VI's 1973 document Immensae Caritatis. An interesting provision was the order of preference for candidates, in the absence of sufficient priests, deacons, or installed Acolytes: "The fit person... will be designated according to the order of this listing (which may be changed at the prudent discretion of the local Ordinary): reader, major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, one of the faithful -- a man or a woman." Contrary to what a certain pastor in the Virginia suburbs has led his parish to believe, there is no strict preference for men over women, as a female Religious or catechist could conceivably be chosen over a noncommissioned or unconsecrated male. (Besides, guys who think they're "by the book" should try reading it once in a while.)

More recently, there was a 1997 document Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration Of The Non-Ordained Faithful In The Sacred Ministry Of Priest, which said that among "certain practices... to be avoided and eliminated" was "the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass." Now, "avoided and eliminated" would seem like saying "no" means "no," right? But the American bishops' conference decided that the implications of an unambiguous term had to be studied by a special committee. Nine years later, we're still waiting for the results.


But while we're waiting, I have pondered what I would do with the phenomenon were I ever to be made a bishop -- which, in another set of life circumstances, would be a great idea.

First, upon taking possession of the cathedral, I would (along with a list of other things, the subject of yet another tirade) direct to be given a list of all the extraordinary ministers of the diocese. I would then accept the eventual resignations of all of them. While that is taking place, an assessment would be made by my liturgy office (headed by a "smells and bells" kinda guy, and an impeccable Latinist) of the approximate number of communicants at all parishes. I would issue a call for service among installed Acolytes (normally found among seminarians and diaconal candidates), male and female Religious, other seminarians/diaconal candidates, catechists, and parish nurses or other pastoral health care workers -- in that order. They would all be interviewed by me personally, and be commissioned by me personally, to a term of three years, renewable at my discretion. These would be the only non-clerics commmissioned to assist with Holy Communion under any circumstances. If the lines were slow enough to get the pastors whining about it, the resident priests and assigned deacons would be expected to assist at all Masses.

They would be vested. Men could wear either cassocks with surplices, or (particularly if serving with women) albs. Women would wear veils, or mantillae, or other appropriate head covering.

Oh, then there is one other thing. The whole idea of something being scheduled is that it becomes regular, therefore ordinary. If they show up, they expect to be employed. Since the function we are discussing is, by definition, EXTRAordinary, those assigned to a parish would consider themselves "on call" for a particular Mass. That is to say, they may be used, or they may not. They would be told if they are needed once they arrive at Mass, by which time it has been determined whether there are enough priests and/or deacons available. Besides, they were gonna come to Mass that weekend anyway, right?

If this policy made the administration under both Species difficult, such administration would be expendable, and would be limited to those special occasions called for in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. This leaves aside the notion of drinking out of a common cup as a disgusting habit under any other circumstances -- no doubt a reason its practice was eliminated in centuries past.

There are those who would say that this threatens the role of the laity in the Church. I suppose it would, if the administration of the Blessed Sacrament were actually the task of the laity. There is nothing in the two millenia of Church teaching and practice, including any document of the Second Vatican Council, that would even remotely support this claim. There is, then, no threat to the role of the laity.

There are others who would say that it would be much simpler to eliminate the practice altogether. In response, one should point out that a critical function of a bishop is to teach. That being the case, to end such a widespread practice requires a re-catechizing of the faithful. This is more easily accomplished by facing the issue up front, and laying out the bad news, as opposed to burying it on the grounds of what would appear as personal perogative. Now, one might disagree with the subtlety of this approach. But I submit that the result would be the unmistakable impression, that not just anybody could do this, but those for whom it is a component of their existing apostolate. In other words, the Eucharist is meant to be touched by the hands of one who has received Holy Orders; that is, a priest or a deacon. Further, the exception to that provision are precisely that -- exceptions. In time, the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion would be seen for what they are -- extraordinary, therefore unnecessary. This bishop (who cannot very well be everywhere at once) would then be reasonably certain that those clerics under his obedience were sufficiently focused on the task at hand on a Sunday morning.

But most important, it wouldn't be a game. Some things in this world were never meant to be.


Anonymous said...

"according to the order of this listing"
The listing given shows men listed ahead of women of similar "status". Does that show preference toward men? (that is to say if they are otherwise of similar religious status, the men are listed ahead of the women and are we to presume they would take presidence?)

Catholic Mom said...

Excellent post! I am happy to say that our large parish in Annandale, all three assigned priests usually distribute communion at every Mass. However, 5-6 Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion participate as well. Six lines go to the front and two lines take care of the balcony.

Just curious about your use of the term deaconess above. I've been carrying on an online discussion with some folks from Richmond, some of whom are advocating ordination of women based on the history of deaconesses in the early Church. My understanding is that these deaconesses were not really considered ordained clergy but more like acolytes.Do you have any more specific information?

David L Alexander said...

Concerning women as deaconesses, I did a piece for the Arlington Catholic Herald nine years ago, and it now sits in the EWTN Online Library:

Among other things, it explains why the claim of "sacramental ordination" would have been understood more broadly then. Since this piece was written, some parts of the Orthodox Church now have women as deaconesses, namely the Greeks and the Antiocheans. They are distinct from their male counterparts, as they have always been.

Catholic Mom said...

Thanks so much! This is exactly what I was looking for!

roamin' catholic said...

I really believe our use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion is abused, overused to extremes. I guess it is against the new rules for distribution of Holy Communion to take more than 3 minutes! We don't want to "waste" too much time doing that do we!

Tony said...

With our previous pastor, the eucharistic ministers would file up into the sanctuary during the fractioning rite. The priest would distribute communion to the ministers assembled in a semi-circle around the back of the altar, he would fraction his host, then one-two-three, they all would consume the hosts at the same time (like concelebrating priests).

Our new pastor put a stop to that practice his first week in our parish. They now line up in front of the sanctuary, and receive first (after the priest).

We lost a few families after that one. One lady was heard to have said: "He took our place on the altar away!". It almost sounded like she was cut from the school play.

Another thing I find reprehensible is an attitude I've gotten that that the ministers of the cup of Precious Blood are "lesser" in some way than the ministers of the hosts.

Carrie said...

Ran into the worst abuse of EM's yet, online. One of them said he really didn't believe in Real Presence. I guess he thought of it as passing out refreshments or something.

David L Alexander said...

Anonymous said:

"The listing given shows men listed ahead of women of similar "status". Does that show preference toward men?"

The original Latin text is the authoritative wording of the law. Such would appear to be the case here. This would not be enough to prevent women from functioning in this way, as that is not the only factor in the order of preference, but it is consistent with the tradition of the presbyterium (that is, the place of presiding) being restricted to men, the inclusion of women being an indulgence.

Carrie said:

"I ran into the worst abuse of EM's yet, online. One of them said he really didn't believe in Real Presence."

I frankly don't know what would make such a person want to serve in this capacity at all. The worst abuse I ever heard, was in a diocesan paper some years back. The issue was of pro-choice politicians receiving Communion, and an EM wrote to the editor bragging that she was pro-choice, and that being an EM presented no problem for her. This was followed in a subsequent issue by an announcement that the woman in question was removed from this function by her pastor.

Anonymous said...

I am acquainted with someone who is an EMHC and who freely states that she does not believe in teh real presence... and is pretty much an agnostic.

The reason she is an EMHC is that is counts as 'volunteer hours' and reduces the tuition for her children at the parish school. She think she is quite clever to get a whole hour credit for every Mass she assists at.

I never much liked EMHCs but after hearing that I refuse to go to them - I will cross th aisles in the church to go to a priest if I must.

When a friend asked why I replied - it's supposed to be EXTRODINARY ministers. And Sunday morning in the suburbs is hardly a war zone...

dawg-lady said...

i see the name "roamin' catholic" on one of the comments above...
that's what i have been for some time...looking for a catholic church with some semblance of orthodoxy.
i'm still roamin'...

(david, why do you use astrological signs in your profile? i hope that's meant to be humorous...)

i like what i've read here.
it makes me feel less alone....that there really is some hope, because there are others out there who believe as i do! :))

the worst abuse i've seen, is the use of an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist directed by the priest to do a communion service in place of a weekend mass.
it seems to me that every one of the people attending were in a state of mortal sin unless they went to mass at one of the other nearby catholic churches.

i suspect, sadly, that the reasoning behind it was economical.
if the people went to another catholic church that weekend, they would have put their money in another collection.

i could just cry.

David L Alexander said...


While available as a last resort, obstensibly in mission areas where a priest is not regularly available, a "communion service" nonetheless does not fulfill one's Sunday obligation. The faithful are to make an honest attempt on such occasions, to travel to where Mass is being offered. This is not possible, say, in much of Alaska. It IS possible in most of the continental USA.

As to the use of astrological signs in the profile, that is something provided by Blogger, which as I recall is based on my date of birth. As a Catholic, I see no significance in such things.